The dynamics of particular classes of war may be universal. In a guerrilla war, the guerrillas tend to organize and fight in a specific pattern. This contradicts olders studies which emphasis cultural or ideological differences.

Guerrillas create social networks that self-organize into attack squads of different strengths. Cells can merge together to form larger attack groups and they can fragment and disperse.

Neil F. Johnson measured the casualties per attack in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Colombia and discovered a power-law coefficient of 2.5. This graphs out the causualty patterns within a war. The full article is here:
Universal patterns underlying ongoing wars and terrorism

This powerlaw explain the probability of casualties caused by each attack. High casualty attacks are very rare. Low casualty attacks are extremely common. It looks like a Long Tail. For instance, you would see a pattern like this: 100, 50, 25, 12, 6, 3, etc with a very long tail of 2s and 1s.


There is one very interesting fact. The power-law coefficient of 2.5 seems to be the equilibrium in network-based armed conflicts.

All three wars and the non-G7 Terrorist casestudies evolved towards coefficients of 2.5. I expected a powerlaw result, but why not 2.0, or 3.0? The Iraq war initially started below 2.5 and gradually rose, while the Colombian war started above 2.5 and dropped. The conflicts stabalize around 2.5. There is scale invariance between different wars.

They did brief overviews of other modern wars and found a similar results near 2.5. They did not carefully review the data so they are not as certain of the result.

The reason for this may have to do with their network structure. Complex social networks adapt to their environment. Guerrillas, regardless of culture and society, face the same military conditions and adapt to behave in the same way.

Here’s Johnson’s hypothesis as to why this is the case.

These findings suggest that modern insurgent wars tend to be driven by the same underlying mechanism: the continual coalescence and fragmentation of attack units.

He tests this hypothesis by modeling attack strength of units and how adaption affects casualties inflicted. It explains the empirical evidence.

Johnson discusses his findings and what they mean for social science:

There are two reasons why the field of human conflict should be of interest to a physicist. First, the increased availability of computerized datasets means that there is a data revolution underway across the social sciences–just as the field of astronomy recently caught alight as a result of improved data collection. Human conflict is as old as mankind itself–however, a lack of reliable time-series data in the past has kept it out of reach of the quantitative sciences. This has now changed with the media, governments and non-governmental organizations all now regularly collecting data on ongoing conflicts.

The second reason touches the fascinating aspect of Complexity Science itself. In particular, modern wars seem to exhibit all the common characteristics of Complex Systems: (1) There is feedback, both at the microscopic and macroscopic scale, yielding a system with memory and non-Markovian dynamics. (2) The time-series of events is non-stationary. (3) There are many types of “particle,” according to the various armed actors, and they interact in possibly time-dependent ways. The war’s evolution is then driven by this ecology of agents. (4) The agents can adapt their behavior and decisions based on past outcomes. The system is far from equilibrium and can exhibit extreme behavior–for example, if the strategies of several groups of agents suddenly coincide. (5) The observed war constitutes a single realization of the system’s possible trajectories. (6) The system is open, with this coupling to the environment making it hard to distinguish between exogenous (i.e. outside) and endogenous (i.e. internal, self-generated) effects.

Complexity explains why a scattered cells operating independently can self-organize into serious threats.

How can we use this info?

The knowledge gained from one war can be transferred to another war on the other side of the world. This improves training and preparation. An excellent counterinsurgency in one place may work in another. If you want to forment an insurgency – this is how you do it.

This helps us predict the needs of peace-keeping operations and nation-building while under these types of threats. Basically, these operations will be more costly than optimists believe – See Iraq.

There are possible lessons for counterterrorism. Insurgent Ecology is more important than any particular insurgent leader.

One goal should be to cause as much fragmentation as possible between guerrilla groups to prevent them from coalescing into larger and more effective attack groups. For example, many guerrillas may have legitimate grievances, so it is possible to lure them out of the insurgency through negotiations.